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The Historic Thames by Hilaire Belloc

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of the hill of a great space of waste lands.

These waste lands of Western Europe, which it was impossible or
unprofitable to cultivate, were, by a sound political tradition,
vested in the common authority, which was the Crown.

Indeed they still remain so vested in most European countries. The
Cantons of Switzerland, the Communes and the National Governments of
France, Italy, and Spain remain in possession of the waste. It is only
with us that wealthy private owners have been permitted to rob the
Commonwealth of so obvious an inheritance, a piece of theft which they
have accomplished with complete cynicism, and by specific acts whose
particular dates can be quoted, though historians are very naturally
careful to leave the process but vaguely analysed. Indeed, the last
and most valuable of these waste spaces, the New Forest itself, might
have entirely disappeared had not Charles I. (the last king in England
to attempt a repression of the landed class) so forcibly urged the
local engrosser to disgorge as to compel him, with Hampden and the
rest, to a burning zeal for political liberty.

This great waste space to the south of Windsor Hill became, after the
Conquest, the Forest, and apart from the hunting which it afforded to
the Royal palace, served a certain purpose on the military side as

To develop a thought which has already been touched on in these pages,
mediaeval fortification was dual in character: it had either a purely
strategical object, in which case the site was chosen with an eye to
its military value, whether inhabited or not, or the stronghold or
fortification was made to develop an already existing town or site of
importance. Of the second sort was Wallingford, but of the first sort,
as we have seen, was Windsor. Indeed the distinction is normal to all
fortification and exists upon the Continent to-day. For instance, the
first-class fortress Paris is an example of the second sort, the
first-class fortress Toul of the first. Again, all German fortresses,
without exception, are of the second sort, while all Swiss
fortification, what little of it exists, is of the first.

Now where the first category is concerned a waste space is of value,
though its dimensions will vary in military importance according to
the means of communication of the time. A stronghold may be said to
repose upon that side through which communications are most difficult.

It is true that this space lying to the south of Windsor was of no
very great dimensions, but such as it was, uninhabited and therefore
unprovided with stores of any kind, it prevented surprise from the

The next point of strategic importance on the Thames, and the last, is
the Tower.

Though it is below bridges it must fall into the scheme of this book,
because its whole military history and connection with the story of
England is bound up with the inland and not with the estuarial river.

It was, as has already been pointed out, one long day's march from
Windsor--a march along the old Roman road from Staines. This land
passage more than halved the distance by river, it cut off not only
the numerous large turns which the Thames begins to take between
Middlesex and Surrey, but also the general sweep southward of the
river, and it avoided, what another road might have necessitated, the
further crossing of the stream.

Long as the march is, there was no fortification of importance between
one point and the other, and mediaeval history is crammed with
instances of armies leaving the Tower to march to Windsor in one day,
or leaving Windsor to march to the Tower.

The position of the Tower we saw in an earlier page to be due to the
same geographical causes as had built up so many of the urban
strongholds of Europe. It was situated upon the very bank of the river
which fed the capital, it was down stream from the town, and it was
just outside the walls. In a word, it was the parallel of the Louvre.

Its remote origins are doubtful; some have imagined that they are
Roman, and that if not in the first part of the Roman occupation at
least towards the end of those wealthy and populous three centuries,
which are the foundation and the making of England, some fortification
was built on the brow of the little eminence which here slopes down to
the high-water mark.

I will quote the evidence, such as it is, and the reader will perceive
how difficult it is to arrive at a conclusion.

Of actual Roman remains all we have is a couple of coins of the end of
the fourth century (probably minted at Constantinople), a silver ingot
of the same period, and a funeral inscription. No indubitably Roman
work has been discovered.

On the other hand there has been no modern investigation of those
foundations of the White Tower where, if anywhere, Roman work might be
expected. This exhausts the direct evidence. In sciences such as
geology or the criticism of Sacred Books evidence to this extent would
be ample to overset the firmest traditions or the most self-evident
conclusion of common human experience. But history is bound to a
greater caution, and it must be reluctantly admitted that the two
coins, the ingot and the bit of stone are insufficient to prove the
existence of a Roman fortress.

Leaving such material and direct evidence we have the tradition, which
is a fairly strong one, of Roman fortification here, and we have the
analogy, so frequently occurring in space and time throughout the
history and the area of Western Europe, that Gaul reproduces Rome.
What the Conqueror saw (it might be vaguely argued) to be the
strategical position for London, that a Roman emperor would have seen.
But against this argument from tradition, which is fairly strong, and
that argument from analogy, which is weak, we have other and contrary

Rome even in her decline did not build her citadels outside the walls:
that was a habit which grew up in the Dark and early Middle Ages, and
was attached to the differentiation between the civic and military
aspects of the State.

Again, Roman fortification of every kind is connected with earthworks.
So far as we can tell from recorded history the ditch round the Tower
was not dug till the end of the twelfth century. Finally, there is
this strong argument against the theory of a Roman origin to the Tower
that had such a Roman fortress existed an extension of the town would
almost certainly have gathered round it.

One of the features of the break-up of Roman society was the enormous
expansion of the towns. We have evidence of it on every side and
nowhere more than in Northern Africa. This expansion took place
everywhere, but especially and invariably in the presence of a
garrison, and indeed the military conditions of the fourth century,
with its cosmopolitan and partially hereditary army, fixed in
permanent garrisons and forming as it were a local caste, presupposed
a large dependent civilian population at the very gates of the camp or
stronghold. Thus you have the Palatine suburb to the south of Lutetia
right up against the camp, and Verecunda just outside Lamboesis. Now
there is nothing of the sort in the neighbourhood of the Tower. It
seems certain that from the earliest times London ended here cleanly
at the wall, and that except along the Great Eastern Road the
neighbourhood of the Tower was agricultural land.

How then could a tradition have arisen with regard to Roman
occupation? It is but a conjecture, though a plausible one, that when
the pirate raids grew in severity this knoll down stream was
fortified, while still the ruling class was Latin speaking and while
still the title of Caesar was familiar, whether before or after the
withdrawal of the Legions. If this were the case, then, on the analogy
of other similar sites, one may imagine something like the following:
that in the Dark Ages the masonry was used as a quarry for other
constructions, that the barbarians would occasionally stockade the
site, though not permanently, and only for the purposes of their
ephemeral but constant quarrels; and one may suggest that when the
barbaric period was ended, by the landing of William's army, the place
was still, by a tradition now six hundred years old, a public area
under the control of the Crown and one such as would lend itself to
the design of a permanent fortification. William, finding it in this
condition, erected upon it the great keep which was to be the last of
his fortifications along the line of the river, and the pivot for the
control of London.

This keep is of course the White Tower, which still impresses even our
generation with the squat and square shoulders of Norman strength. It
and Ely are the best remaining expressions of the hardy little men,
and it fills one, as does everything Norman, from the Tyne to the
Euphrates, with something of awe. This building, the White Tower, is
the Tower itself; the rest is but an accretion, partly designed for
defence, but latterly more for habitation. Its name of the "White"
Tower is probably original, though we do not actually find the term
"La Blaunche Tour" till near the middle of the fourteenth century. The
presumption that it is the original name is founded upon a much
earlier record--namely, that of 1241, in which not only is it ordered
that the tower be repainted white, but in which mention is also made
that its original colour had been "worn by the weather and by the long
process of time." Such a complaint would take one back to the twelfth
century, and quite probably to the first building of the Keep. The
object of whitening the walls of the Tower is again explicable by the
very reasonable conjecture that it would so serve as a landmark over
the long, flat stretches of the lower river. It was the last
conspicuous building against the mass of the great town, and there are
many examples of similar landmarks used at the head of estuaries or
sea passages. When these are not spires they are almost invariably
white, especially where they are so situated as to catch the southern
or the eastern sun.

The exact date at which the plan was undertaken we do not know, but it
is obviously one with the scheme of building Windsor, and must date
from much the same period. The order to build was given by the
Conqueror to the Bishop of Rochester, Gundulph. Now Gundulph was not
promoted to the See of Rochester till 1077. Exactly twenty years
later, in 1097, the son of the Conqueror built the outer wall. The
Keep was then presumed to be completed, and at some time during those
twenty years it must have been begun, probably about 1080. That which
we have seen increasing, the military importance of Windsor,
diminished the military importance of the Tower, until, with the close
of the Middle Ages, it had become no more than a prison. It was not
indeed swamped by the growth of the town, as was its parallel the
Louvre, but the increase of wealth (and therefore of the means of
war), coupled with the correspondingly increased population, made both
urban fortresses increasingly difficult to hold as mediaeval
civilisation developed.

The whole history of the Tower is the history of military misfortune,
which grows as London expands in numbers and prosperity. It probably
held out under Mandeville when the Londoners (who were always the
allies of the aristocracy against the national government) besieged it
under the civil wars of Stephen; but even so there was bad luck
attached to it, for when Mandeville was taken prisoner he was
compelled to sign its surrender. Within a generation Longchamp again
surrendered it to the young Prince John; he was for the moment leading
the aristocracy, which, when it was his turn to reign, betrayed him.
It was surrendered to the baronial party by the King as a trust or
pledge for the execution of Magna Charta, and though it was put into
the hands of the Archbishop, who was technically neutral, it was from
that moment the symbol of a successful rebellion, as it had already
proved to be in the past and was to prove so often again.

It was handed over to Louis of France upon his landing, and during the
next reign almost every misfortune of Henry III. is connected with the
Tower. He was perpetually taking refuge in it, holding his Court in
it: losing it again, as the rebels succeeded, and regaining it as they
failed. This long and unfortunate tenure of his is illumined only by
one or two delightful phrases which one cannot but retain as one
reads. Thus there is the little written order, which still remains to
us for the putting of painted windows into the Chapel of St John, the
northern one of which was to have for its design "some little Mary or
other, holding her Child"--"quandam Mariolam tenenten puerum suum."
There is also a very pleasing legend in the same year, 1241, when the
fall of certain new buildings was ascribed to the action of St.
Thomas, who was seen by a priest in a dream upsetting them with his
crozier and saying that he did this "as a good citizen of London,
because these new buildings were not put up for the defence of the
realm but to overawe the town," and he added this charming remark: "If
I had not undertaken the duty myself St. Edward or another would have
done it."

Even when Henry's misfortunes were at an end, and when the Battle of
Evesham was won, the Tower was perpetually unfortunate. A body of
rebels surrounded it, and in the defence were present a great number
of Jews, who had fled from the fighting in the city only to find
themselves pressed for service in defence of the fortress. From that
moment they make no further appearance in English military history
till the South African War, unless indeed their appearance in chains
thirteen years later in this same Tower as prisoners for financial
trickery can be counted a military event.

Upon this occasion the siege was raised by the promptitude and energy
of Prince Edward--the man who as King was to march to Caernarvon and to
the Grampians had already in his boyhood shown the energy and the
military aptitude of his grandfather King John. He was but twenty
years old, yet he had already done all the fighting at Lewes, he had
already won Evesham, and now, at the end of spring, he made one march
from Windsor to the Tower and relieved it. It was almost the last time
that the Tower stood for the success of authority. From this time
onwards it is, as it had been before, the unfortunate symbol of
successful rebellion. Edward II. had to leave it in his fatal year of
1326, the Londoners poured in and incidentally massacred the Bishop of
Exeter, into whose hands it had been entrusted.

In 1460 it surrendered to the House of York, and from that time
onwards becomes more and more of a prison and less and less of a

The preponderatingly military aspect of the Thames Valley in English
history dwindles with the dwindling of military energy in our
civilisation, and passes with the passing of a governing class that
was military rather than commercial.

Sites which owed their importance to strategical position, and which
had hence grown into considerable towns, ceased to show any but a
civilian character, and even in the only episode of consequence
wherein fighting occurred in England since the Middle Ages--the
episode of the Civil Wars--the banks of the Thames, though perpetually
infested by either army, saw very little serious fighting, and that
although the line of the Thames was the critical line of action during
the first stage of the war.

For the Civil Wars as a whole were but an affair upon the flank of the
general struggle in Europe: the losses were never heavy, and in the
first stages one can hardly call it fighting at all.

The losses at the skirmish of Edge Hill were, indeed, respectable,
though most of them seem to have been incurred after the true fighting
ceased, but with that exception, and especially upon the line of the
Thames itself, the losses were extraordinarily small.

One may say that Oxford and London were the two objective points of
the opposing forces from the close of 1642 to the spring of 1644. The
King's Government at Oxford, the Parliament in London, were the civil
bases, at least, upon which the opposing forces pivoted, and the two
intermediate points were Abingdon and Reading. To read the
contemporary, and even the modern, history of the time, one would
imagine from the terms used that these places were the theatre of
considerable military operations. We hear, with every technicality
which the Continental struggle had rendered familiar to Englishmen, of
sieges, assaults, headquarters, and even hornworks. But when one looks
at dates and figures it is not easy to treat the matter seriously.
Here, for instance, is Abingdon, within a short walk of Oxford, and
the Royalists easily allow it to be occupied by Essex in the spring of
'44. Even so Abingdon is not used as a base for doing anything more
serious than "molesting" the university town. And it was so held that
Rupert tried to recapture it, of all things in the world, with
cavalry! He was "overwhelmed" by the vastly superior forces of the
enemy, and his attempt failed. When one has thoroughly grasped this
considerable military event one next learns that the overwhelming
forces were a trifle over a thousand in number!

Next an individual gentleman with a few followers conceives the
elementary idea of blocking the western road at Culham Bridge, and
isolating Abingdon upon this side. He begins building a "fort." A
certain proportion of the handful in Abingdon go out and kill him and
the fort is not proceeded with: and so forth. A military temper of
this sort very easily explains the cold-blooded massacre of prisoners
which the Parliament permitted, and which has given to the phrase
"Abingdon Law" the unpleasant flavour which it still retains.

The story of Reading in the earlier part of the struggle is much the
same. Reading was held as a royal garrison and fortified in '43.
According to the garrison the fortification was contemptible,
according to the procedures it was of the most formidable kind. Indeed
they doubted whether it could be captured by an assault of less than
5000 men, a number which appeared at this stage of the campaign so
appalling that it is mentioned as a sort of standard of comparison
with the impossible. The garrison surrendered just as relief was
approaching it, and after a strain which it had endured for no less
than ten days; but the capture of Reading was not effected entirely
without bloodshed; certainly fifty men were killed (counting both
sides), possibly a few more; and the whole episode is a grotesque
little foot-note to the comic opera upon which rose the curtain of the
Civil Wars. It was not till the appearance of Cromwell, with his
highly paid and disciplined force, that the tragedy began.

Even after Cromwell had come forward as the chief leader, in fact if
not in name, the apparent losses are largely increased by the random
massacres to which his soldiers were unfortunately addicted. Thus
after Naseby a hundred women were killed for no particular reason
except that killing was in the air, and similarly after Philiphaugh
the conscience of the Puritans forbade them to keep their word to the
prisoners they had taken, who were put to the sword in cold blood: the
women, however, on this occasion, were drowned.

After the Civil Wars all the military meaning of the Thames
disappears. Nor is it likely to revive short of a national disaster;
but that disaster would at once teach us the strategical meaning of
this great highway running through the south of England with its
attendant railways, it would re-create the strategical value of the
point where the Thames turns northward and where its main railways
bifurcate; it would provide in several conceivable cases, as it
provided to Charles I. and to William III., the line of approach on

* * * * *

So far as we have considered the Thames, first as a line of
pre-historic settlements, passing successively into the Roman, the
barbaric and the Norman phases of our history; and secondly, as a
field on which one can plot out certain strategical points and show
how these points created the original importance of the towns which
grew about them.

In the next part of these notes I propose to consider the economic or
civil development of the Thames above London, and to show how the
foundations of its permanent prosperity was laid. That economic
phenomenon has at its roots the action of the Benedictine Order. It
was the great monasteries which bridged the transition between Rome
and the Dark Ages throughout North-Western Europe; it was they that
recovered land wasted by the barbarian invasions, and that developed
heaths and fens which the Empire even in its maturity had never
attempted to exploit.

The effect of the barbarian invasions was different in different
provinces of the Roman Empire, though roughly speaking it increased in
intensity with the distance from Rome. It is probable that the actual
numbers of the barbarian invaders was small even in Britain, as it
certainly was in Northern Gaul, but we must not judge of the effect
produced upon civilisation by this catastrophe, as though it were a
mere question of numbers. So large a proportion of the population was
servile, and so fixed had the imagination of everyone become in the
idea that the social order was eternal; so entirely had the army
become a professional thing, and probably a thing of routine divorced
from the civilian life round it, that at the close of the fourth
century a little shock from without was enough to produce a very
considerable result. In Eastern Britain, small as the number of the
invaders must necessarily have been, religion itself was almost, if
not entirely, destroyed, and the whole fabric of Roman civilisation
appears to have dissolved--with the exception, of course, of such
irremovable things as the agricultural system, the elements of
municipal life, and the simpler arts. Even the language very probably
changed in the eastern part of the island, and passed from what we may
conceive to have been Low Latin in the towns and Celtic dialects in
the country-sides, with possibly Teutonic settlements here and there
along the eastern shore, to a generally confused mass of Teutonic
dialects scattered throughout the eastern and northern half of the
island and enclosing but isolated fragments of Celtic speech.

So far as we can judge the disaster was complete, but it was destined
that Britain should be recivilised.

St Augustine landed, and after the struggle of the seventh century
between those petty chieftains who sympathised with, and those who
opposed, the order of cultivated European life, the battle was won in
favour of that civilisation which we still enjoy. It would have been
impossible to re-create a sound agriculture and to refound the arts
and learning; especially would it have been impossible to refound the
study of letters, upon which all material civilisation depends, had it
not been for the monastic institution. This institution did more work
in Britain than in any other province of the Empire. And it had far
more to do. It found a district utterly wrecked, perhaps half
depopulated, and having lost all but a vague memory of the old Roman
order; it had to remake, if it could, of all this part of a Europe. No
other instrument was fitted for the purpose.

The chief difficulty of starting again the machine of civilisation
when its parts have been distorted by a barbarian interlude, whether
external or internal in origin, is the accumulation of capital. The
next difficulty is the preservation of such capital in the midst of
continual petty feuds and raids, and the third is that general
continuity of effort, and that treasuring up of proved experience, to
which a barbaric time, succeeding upon the decline of a civilisation,
is particularly unfitted. For the surmounting of all these
difficulties the monks of Western Europe were suited to a high degree.
Fixed wealth could be accumulated in the hands of communities whose
whole temptation was to gather, and who had no opportunity for
spending in waste. The religious atmosphere in which they grew up
forbade their spoliation, at least in the internal wars of a Christian
people, and each of the great foundations provided a community of
learning and treasuring up of experience which single families,
especially families of barbaric chieftains, could never have achieved.
They provided leisure for literary effort, and a strict disciplinary
rule enforcing regular, continuous, and assiduous labour, and they
provided these in a society from which exact application of such a
kind had all but disappeared.

The monastic institution, so far as Western Europe was concerned, was
comparatively young when the work in Britain was begun. The fifth
century had seen its inception; it was still embryonic in the sixth;
the seventh, which was the date of its great conquest of the English
country-sides, was for it a period of youth and of vigour as fresh as
was, let us say, the thirteenth century for the renaissance of civil
learning. We must not think of these early foundations as we think of
the complicated, wealthy, somewhat restricted and privileged bodies of
the later Middle Ages. They were all more or less of one type, and
that type a simple one. They all sprang from the same Benedictine
stem. It was the quality of all to be somewhat independent in
management, and especially to work in large units, and out of the very
many which sprang, up all over the island three particularly concern
the Thames Valley. Each of them dates from the very beginnings of
Anglo-Saxon history, each of them has its roots in legend, and each of
them continued for close upon a thousand years to be a capital
economic centre of English life. These three great Benedictine

When civilisation returned in fulness with the Norman Conquest,
another great house of the first importance was founded--at Reading;
and, much later, a fourth at Sheen. To these we shall turn in their
place, as also to the string of dependent houses and small foundations
which line the river almost from its source right down to London:
indeed the only type of religious foundation which historic notes such
as these can afford to neglect is the monastery or nunnery built in a
town, and for the purposes of a town, after the civic life of a town
had developed. These very numerous houses (most numerous, of course,
in Oxford), such as the Observants of Richmond and a host of others,
do not properly enter into the scheme we are considering. They are not
causes but effects of the development of civilisation in the Thames

Abingdon, Westminster, and Chertsey are all ascribed by tradition, and
each by a very vital and well-documented tradition, to the seventh
century: Abingdon and Chertsey to its close; Westminster, with less
assurance, to its beginning. All three, we may take it, did arise in
that period which was for the eastern part of this island a time when
all the work of Europe had to be begun again. Though we know nothing
of the progress of the Saxon pirates in the province of Britain, and
though history is silent for the hundred and fifty years covered by
the disaster, yet on the analogy of other and later raids from the
North Sea we may imagine that no inland part of the country suffered
more than the valley of the Thames. All that was left of the Roman
order, wealth and right living, must have appeared at the close of
that sixth century, when the Papal Mission landed, something as
appears the wrecked and desolate land upon the retirement of a flood.
To cope with such conditions, to reintroduce into the ravaged and
desecrated province, which had lost its language in the storm, all its
culture, and even its religion, a new beginning of energy and of
production, came, with the peculiar advantages we have seen it to
possess for such a work, the monastic institution. For two centuries
the great houses were founded all over England: their attachment to
Continental learning, their exactitude, their corporate power of
action, were all in violent contrast to, and most powerfully
educational for, the barbarians in the midst of whom they grew. It may
be truly said that if we regard the life of England as beginning anew
with the Saxon invasion, if that disaster of the pirate raids be
considered as so great that it offers a breach of continuity in the
history of Britain, then the new country which sprang up, speaking
Teutonic dialects, and calling itself by its present name of England,
was actually created by the Benedictine monks.

It was within a very few years of St. Augustine's landing that
Westminster must have been begun. There are several versions of the
story: the most detailed statement we have ascribes it to the
particular year 604, but varied as are the forms in which the history,
or rather the legend, is preserved, the truth common to all is the
foundation quite early in the seventh century. It was very probably
supported by what barbaric Government there was in London at the time
and initiated, moreover, according to one form of the legend, and that
not the least plausible, by the first bishop of the see. The site was
at the moment typical of all those which the great monasteries of the
West were to turn from desert places to gardens: it was a waste tract
of ground called "Thorney," lying low, triangular in shape, bounded by
the two reedy streams that descended through the depression which now
runs across the Green Park and Mayfair, and emptied themselves into
the Thames, the one just above, the other 100 or 200 yards below, the
site of the Houses of Parliament.

The moment the foundation was established a stream of wealth tended
towards it: it was at the very gate of the largest commercial city in
the kingdom and it was increasingly associated, as the Anglo-Saxon
monarchy developed, with the power of the Central Government. This
process culminated in the great donation and rebuilding of Edward the

The period of this new endowment was one well chosen to launch the
future glory of Westminster. England was all prepared to be permeated
with the Norman energy, and when immediately after the Conquest came,
the great shrine inherited all the glamour of a lost period, while it
established itself with the new power as a sort of symbol of the
continuity of the Crown. There William was anointed, there was his
palace and that of his son. When, with the next century, the seat of
Government became fixed, and London was finally established as the
capital, Westminster had already become the seat of the monarchy.

Chertsey, next up the river, took on the work. Like
Westminster--though, by tradition, a few years later than
Westminster--its foundation goes back to the birth of England. Its
history is known in some detail, and is full of incident, so that it
may be called the pivot upon which, presumably, turned the development
of the Thames Valley above London for two hundred years. Its site is
worth noting. The rich, but at first probably swampy, pasturage upon
the Surrey side was just such a position as one foundation after
another up and down England settled on. To reclaim land of this kind
was one of the special functions of the great abbeys, and Chertsey may
be compared in this particular to Hyde, for instance, or to the Vale
of the Cross, to Fountains, to Ripon, to Melrose, and to many others.
It was in the new order of monastic development what Staines, its
neighbour, had been in the old Roman order--the mark of the first
stage up-river from London.

The pagan storm which all but repeated in Britain the disaster of the
Saxon invasions, which all but overcame the mystic tenacity of Alfred
and the positive mission of the town of Paris, swept it completely.
Its abbot and its ninety monks were massacred, and it was not till
late in the next century, about 950, that it arose again from its
ruins. It was deliberately re-colonised again from Abingdon, and from
that moment onwards it grew again into power. Donations poured upon
it; one of them, not the least curious, was of land in Cardiganshire.
It came from those Welsh princes who were perpetually at war with the
English Crown: for religion was in those days what money is now--a
thing without frontiers--and it seemed no more wonderful to the Middle
Ages that an English monastery should collect its rents in an enemy's
land than it seems strange to us that the modern financier should draw
interest upon money lent for armament against the country of his
domicile. Here also was first buried (and lay until it was removed to
Windsor) the body of Henry VI.

The third of the great early foundations is Abingdon, and in a way it
is the greatest, for, without direct connection with the Crown, by the
mere vitality of its tradition, it became something more even than
Chertsey was, wielding an immense revenue, more than half that of
Westminster itself, and situated, as it was, in a small up-valley
town, ruling with almost monarchical power. There could be even less
doubt in the case of Abingdon than there was in the case of Chertsey
that it was the creator of its own district of the Thames. It stood
right in the marshy and waste spaces of the middle upper river,
commanding a difficult but an important ford, and holding the gate of
what was to be one of the most fruitful and famous of English vales.
It can only have been from Abingdon that the culture and energy
proceeded which was to build up Northern Berkshire and Oxfordshire
between the Saxon and the Danish invasions. There only was established
a sufficient concentration of capital for the work and of knowledge
for the application of that wealth.

Like its two peers at Chertsey and at Westminster, Abingdon begins
with legend. We are fairly sure of its date, 675, but the anchorite of
the fifth century, "Aben," is as suspicious as the early Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle itself, and still wilder are the fine and striking stories
of its British origin, of its destruction under the persecution of
Diocletian and of its harbouring the youth of Constantine. But the
stories are at least enough to show with what violence the pomp and
grandeur of the place struck the imagination of its historians.

Abingdon was, moreover, probably on account of its distance from
London, more of a local centre, and, to repeat a word already used,
more of a "monarchy" than the other great monasteries of the Thames
Valley. This is sufficiently proved by a glance at the ecclesiastic
map, such as, for instance, that published in "The Victoria History of
the County of Berkshire," where one sees the manors belonging to
Abingdon at the time of the Conquest all clustered together and
occupying one full division of the county, that, namely, included in
the great bend of the Thames which has its cusp at Witham Hill.
Abingdon was the life of Northern Berkshire, and it is not fantastic
to compare its religious aspect in Saxon times over against the King's
towns of Wantage and Wallingford to the larger national aspect of
Canterbury over against Winchester and London.

Even in its purely civic character, it acquired a position which no
one of the greater northern monasteries could pretend to, through the
building of its bridge in the early fifteenth century. The twin fords
crossing this bend of the river were, though direct and important,
difficult; when they were once bridged and the bridges joined by the
long causeway which still runs across Andersey Island between the old
and the new branches of the Thames, travel was easily diverted from
the bridge of Wallingford to that at Abingdon, and the great western
road running through Farringdon towards the Cotswolds and the valley
of the Severn had Abingdon for its sort of midway market town.

These three great Benedictine monasteries form, as it were, the three
nurseries or seed plots from which civilisation spread out along the
Thames Valley after the destruction wrought by the first and worst
barbarian invasions. All three, as we have seen, go back to the very
beginning of the Christian phase of English history; the origins of
all three merge in those legends which make a twilight between the
fantastic stories of the earlier paganism and the clear records of the
Christian epoch after the re-Latinisation of England. An outpost
beyond these three is the institution of St Frideswides at Oxford.
Beyond that point the upper river, gradually narrowing, losing its
importance for commerce and as a highway, supported no great
monastery, and felt but tardily the economic change wrought by the
foundations lower down the stream.

Chertsey and Westminster certainly, and Abingdon very probably, were
destroyed, or at least sacked, in the Danish invasions, but their
roots lay too deep to allow them to disappear: they re-arose, and a
generation before the Conquest were again by far the principal centres
of production and government in the Thames Valley. Indeed, with the
exception of the string of royal estates upon the banks of the river,
and of the town of Oxford, Chertsey, Westminster and Abingdon were the
only considerable seats of regulation and government upon the Thames,
when the Conquest came to reorganise the whole of English life.

With that revolution it was evident that a great extension not only of
the numbers, but especially of the organisation and power, of the
monastic system would appear: that gaps left uninfluenced by it in the
line of the Thames would be filled up, and all the old foundations
themselves would be reconstructed and become new things.

The Conquest is in its way almost as sharp a division in the history
of England as is the landing of St Augustine. In some externals it
made an even greater difference to this island than did the advent of
the Roman Missionaries, though of course, in the fundamental things
upon which the national life is built, the re-entry of England into
European civilisation in the seventh century must count as a far
greater and more decisive event than its first experience of united
and regular government under the Normans in the eleventh. Moreover
although the Conquest largely changed the language of the island,
introduced a conception of law in civil affairs with which the
Anglo-Saxon aristocracy were quite unfamiliar, and began to flood
England with a Gallic admixture which flowed .uninterruptedly for
three hundred years, yet it did not change the intimate philosophy of
the people, and it is only the change of the intimate philosophy of a
people which can have a revolutionary consequence. The Conquest found
England Catholic, vaguely feudal, and, though in rather an isolated
way, thoroughly European. The Normans organised that feudality,
extirpated whatever was unorthodox, or slack in the machinery of the
religious system, and let in the full light of European civilisation
through a wide-open door, which had hitherto been half-closed.

The effect, therefore, of the Conquest was exercised upon the visible
and mutable things of the country rather than upon the nourishing
inward things: but it was very great, and in nothing was it greater
than in its inception of new buildings and the use everywhere of
stone. Under the Normans very nearly all the great religious
foundations of England re-arose, and that within a generation. New
houses also arose, and the mark of that time (which was a second
spring throughout Europe: full of the spirit of the Crusades, and a
complete regeneration of social life) was the rigour of new religious
orders, and especially the transformation of the old Benedictine

Chief, of course, of these religious movements, and the pioneer of
them all, was the institution of Cluny in Burgundy.

Cluny did not rise by design. It was one of those spontaneous growths
which are characteristic of vigorous and creative times. Those who are
acquainted with the Burgundian blood will not think it fantastic to
imagine the vast reputation of Cluny to have been based upon rhetoric.
It was perhaps the sonorous Burgundian facility for expression and the
inheritance of oratory which belonged to Burgundian soil till
Bossuet's birth, and which still belongs to it, that gave Cluny a sort
of spell over the mind of Western Europe, and which made Cluny a
master in the century which preceded the great change of the Crusades.
From Cluny as a mother house proceeded communities instinct with the
discipline and new life of the reformed order, and though it has been
remarked that these communities were not numerous, in comparison to
the vigour of the movement, yet it should also be noted that they were
nearly always very large and wealthy, that they were in a particular
and close relation to the civil government of the district in which
each was planted, and that their absolute dependence upon the mother
house, and their close observance of one rule, lent the whole order
something of the force of an army.

The Cluniac influence came early into the Thames Valley. By the
beginning of the twelfth century, and within fifty years of the
Conquest, this new influence was found interpolated with and imposed
upon the five centuries that had hitherto been wholly dependent upon
the three great Benedictine posts. This Cluniac foundation, the first
of the new houses on the Thames, was fixed upon the peninsula of

It was in 1121 that the son of the Conqueror brought the Cluniac order
to the little town. From the moment of the foundation of the abbey it
attracted, in part by its geographical position, in part by the fact
that it was the first great new foundation upon the Thames, and in
part by the accident which lent a special devotion or power to one
particular house and which was in this case largely due to the
discipline and character of the Cluniac order, Reading took on a very
high position in England. It had about it, if one may so express
oneself, something more modern, something more direct and political
than was to be found in the old Benedictine houses that had preceded
it. The work it had to do was less material: the fields were already
drained, the life and wealth of the new civilisation had begun, and
throughout the four hundred years of its existence the function of
Reading was rather to entertain the Court, to assist at parliaments,
and to be, throughout, the support of the monarchy. It sprang at once
into this position, and its architecture symbolised to some extent the
rapid command which it acquired, for it preserved to the end the
characteristics of the early century in which it was erected: the
Norman arch, the dog-tooth ornaments, the thick walls, the barbaric
capitals of the early twelfth century.

Before the thirteenth it was in wealth equal to, and in public repute
the superior of, any foundation upon the banks of the Thames with the
exception of Westminster itself, and it forms, with the three
Benedictine foundations, and with the later foundation of Osney, the
last link in the chain of abbeys which ran unbroken from stage to
stage throughout the whole length of the river. And with it ends the
story of those first foundations which completed the recivilisation of
the Valley.

Reading was not the only Cluniac establishment upon the Thames.
Another, and earlier one, was to be found at Bermondsey; but its
proximity to London and its distance down river forbid it having any
place in these pages. It was founded immediately after the Conquest;
Lanfranc colonised it with French monks; it became an abbacy at the
very end of the fourteenth century, and was remarkable for its
continual accretion of wealth, an accretion in some part due to the
growing importance of London throughout its existence. At the end of
the thirteenth century it stands worth L280. At the time of its
dissolution, on the first of January 1538, in spite of the much higher
value of money in the sixteenth century as compared with the
thirteenth, it stands worth over L500: L10,000 a year.

A relic of its building remained (but only a gatehouse) till 1805.

Osney also dated from the early twelfth century, and was almost
contemporary with Reading.

It stood just outside the walls of Oxford Castle to the west, and upon
the bank of the main stream of the Thames, and owed its foundation to
the Conqueror's local governing family of Oilei. Though at the moment
of its suppression it hardly counted a fifth of the revenues of
Westminster (which must be our standard throughout all this
examination), yet its magnificence profoundly affected contemporaries,
and has left a great tradition. It must always be remembered that
these great monasteries were not only receivers of revenue as are our
modern rich, but were also producers or, rather, could be producers
when they chose, and that therefore the actual economic power of any
one foundation might always be higher, and often was very considerably
higher, than the nominal revenue, the dead income, which passed to the
spoliators of the sixteenth century. When a town is sacked the army
gets a considerable loot, but nothing like what the value was of the
city as it flourished before the siege.

At any rate, whether Osney owed its magnificence to internal industry,
to a wise expenditure, or to a severity of life which left a large
surplus for ornament and extension, it was for 400 years the principal
building upon the upper river, catching the eye from miles away up by
Eynsham meadows and forming a noble gate to the University town for
those who approached it from the west by the packway, of which traces
still remain, and over the bridges which the Conqueror had built. So
deep was the impress of Osney upon the locality, and even upon the
national Government, that Henry proposed, as in the case of
Westminster, to make of the building one of his new cathedrals, and to
establish there his new See of Oxford. The determination, however,
lasted but for a very short time. In a few years the financial
pressure was too much for him; he transferred the see to the old
Church of St Frideswides, where it still remains, and gave up Osney to
loot. It was looted very thoroughly.

The smaller monasteries need hardly a mention. At the head of them
comes Eynsham, worth more than half as much as Osney, and a very
considerable place. Founded as a colony or adjunct to Stow, in
Lincolnshire, it outlived the importance of the parent house, and was
at the height of its prosperity immediately before the Dissolution.

Eynsham affords a very good instance of the way in which the fabric in
these superb temples disappeared. As late as the early eighteenth
century there was still standing the whole of the west front; the two
high towers, the splendid west window, and the sculptured doorways
were complete, though they remained but as a fragment of a ruined
building. A century and a half passed and the whole had disappeared,
carted away to build walls and stables for the local squires, or sold
by the local squires for rubble.

Of the little priory at Lechlade very little is known, save that it
was founded in the thirteenth century and had disappeared long before
the Reformation, while of that at Cricklade we know even less, save
that it humbly survived and was counted in the "bag" at only four
pounds a year.

With Dorchester, which had existed from the twelfth century, and which
was worth almost half as much as Eynsham, and with the considerable
Cell of Hurley which attached to Westminster, the list is complete. It
is interesting to know that the church at Dorchester was saved by the
local patriotism of one man, who left half his fortune for the
purchase of it, and that not in order to ruin it and to sell the
stones of it, but in order to preserve it: a singular man.

In a general survey of monastic influence in the Valley of the Thames,
it would be natural to omit the foundations which belonged to the
later Middle Ages. It was in the Dark Ages that the great Benedictine
work was done, the pastures drained, the woods planted, the
settlements established. It was in the early Middle Ages, in the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries and in the first half of the
fourteenth--in a word, before the Black Death--that the work of the
new and vigorous foundations, and the revived energy of the older
ones, spread Gothic architecture, scholastic learning, and the whole
reinvigorated social system of the time, from Oxford to Westminster;
and the historian who notes the social and economic effects of
monasticism in Western Europe, however enthusiastic he may be in
defence of that force, cannot with truth lend it between the Black
Death and the Reformation a vigour which it did not possess. It had
tended to become, in the fifteenth century, a fixed social institution
like any other, one might almost say a bundle of proprietary rights
like any other. And though it is easy now to perceive what ruin was
caused by the sudden destruction, the contemporaries of the last age
of Great Houses were perpetually considering their privilege and their
immovable tradition rather than the remaining functions which the
monasteries fulfilled in the State.

On this account historical notes dealing with the development of the
Thames Valley would naturally omit a reference to foundations existing
only from the close of the Middle Ages. But an exception must be made
to this rule in the case of Sheen.

Sheen was a Charterhouse, and it merits observation not only from the
peculiar characteristics of the Carthusian Order, but also from its
considerable position so near to Westminster and not yet overshadowed
by the greatness either of that abbey or of Chertsey. It received,
from its land in England alone, a revenue of close upon two-thirds of
that which Westminster enjoyed. Recent in its origin (it had existed
for only just over 100 years when Henry VIII. attacked it), not
without that foreign flavour which, rightly or wrongly, was ascribed
in this island to the Carthusian Order, rigid in doctrine, and of a
magnificent temper in the defence of religion, these Carthusians, like
their brethren in London, formed a very natural target for the King's
attack. I include them only because notes upon the mediaeval
foundations, would be quite imperfect were there no mention of Sheen,
late as the origin of the community was, and little as it had to do
with the historic development of the valley.

This completes the list of the greater foundations; with the lesser
ones it would only be possible to deal in pages devoted to the
Monastic Institution alone. The very numerous communities of friars,
and the hospitals in the towns upon the Thames, cannot be mentioned,
the little nunneries of Ankerwick, Burnham, and Little Marlow, the
communities, early and late, of Medmenham and Cholsey, the priories of
Lechlade and of Cricklade (which might have occupied a larger space
than was available), must be passed over. Even Godstow, famous as it
is from the early legend of Rosamond, and considerable as was its
function both of education and of retreat, cannot be included in the
list of those principal foundations which alone take rank as
originators of the prosperity of the valley.

Several of these smaller houses went in the dissolution to swell the
revenues of Bisham, the new community which Henry, as he said,
intended to take the place of much that he had destroyed; and Bisham
would be very well worth a considerable attention from the reader had
it survived. But it did not survive. Hardly was it founded when Henry
himself immediately destroyed it, and, as we shall see later, Bisham
affords one of the most curious and instructive examples of the way in
which that large monastic revenue, which it was certainly intended to
keep in the hands of the Crown, and which, had it been so kept, would
have given to England the strongest Central Government in Europe,
drifted into the hands of the squires, multiplied perhaps by ten the
wealth of their class, and transformed the Government of England into
that oligarchy which was completed in the seventeenth century, and
which, though permeated and transformed by Jewish finance, is standing
in a precarious strength to this day.

Westminster, Chertsey, Sheen, Reading, Abingdon, and Osney

One writes the list straight off without considering, taking it for
granted that everything which could have roused the cupidity of that
generation necessarily disappeared: and as one writes it one remembers
that, after all, Westminster survived. Its survival was an accident,
which will be further considered. But that survival, so far from
redeeming, emphasises and throws into relief the destruction of the

Of these enduring monuments of human energy and, what is more
important still in the control of energy, human certitude, what
besides Westminster survived? Of Chertsey there is perhaps a gateway
and part of a wall; of Sheen nothing; of Reading a few flints built
into modern work; of Abingdon a gateway, and a buttress or two that
long served to support a brewhouse; of Osney nothing, contrariwise,
electric works and the slums of a modern town. All these were
Westminsters. In all of these was to be discovered that patient
process of production which argues the continuity, and therefore the
dignity, of human civilisation. Each had the glass which we can no
longer paint, the vivid, living, and happy grotesque in sculpture
which only the best of us can so much as understand; each had a
thousand and another thousand details of careful work in stone meant
to endure, if not for ever, at least into such further centuries as
might have the added faith and added knowledge to restore them in
greater plenitude. The whole thing has gone. It has gone to no
purpose. Nothing has been built upon it save a wandering host of rich
and careworn men.

Suppose a man to have gone down the Thames when the new discussions
were beginning in London and (as was customary even at the close of
the Middle Ages) were spreading from town to town with a rapidity that
we, who have ceased to debate ideas, can never understand. Let such a
traveller or bargeman have gone down from Cricklade to the Tower, how
would the Great Houses have appeared to him?

The upper river would have been much the same, but as he came to that
part of it which was wealthy and populous, as he turned the corner of
Witham Hill, he would already have seen far off, larger and a little
nearer than the many spires of Oxford, a building such as to-day we
never see save in our rare and half-deserted cathedral country towns.
It was the Abbey of Osney. It would have been his landmark, as
Hereford is the landmark for a man to-day rowing up to Wye, or the new
spire of Chichester for a man that makes harbour out of the channel
past Bisham upon a rising tide. And as he passed beneath it (for, of
the many branches here, the main stream took him that way) he would
have seen a great and populous place with nothing ruinous in it, all
well ordered, busy with men and splendid; here again that which we now
look upon as a relic and a circumstance of repose was once alive and

Upon his way beneath the old stone bridge which crossed the ford, and
shooting between the lifted paddles of the weirs, he would, once below
Oxford, have seen much the same pastures that we see to-day; but in a
few hours Abingdon, the next to Osney, would have fixed his eyes as
Osney had before.

Abingdon would have been to him what Noyon is on the Oise, or any of
our river cathedrals in Western Europe--an apse pointing up stream,
though rounded and lacking the flying buttresses of the Gothic, for it
was thick, broad, and Norman. Here also, as one may believe, from its
situation, trees would have shrouded somewhat what he saw. There are
few such riverside apses in Christian Europe that are not screened in
this manner by trees planted between the stream and them. But as he
drifted farther down, before he reached the bridge, the west front
would have burst upon him, quite new, exceedingly rich and proud, a
strict example, one may believe, of the Perpendicular, and of what was
for the first time, and for a moment only, a true English Gothic. It
would have stood out before him, catching the sun of the afternoon in
its maze of glass. It would have seemed a thing to endure; within his
lifetime it was to be utterly destroyed.

Once more in the many reaches between Abingdon and Wallingford, the
sights would have been those which a man sees now. And though at
Wallingford he would have had before him a town of brilliant red tiles
and timberwork, and a town perhaps larger than that which we see
to-day, yet (could such a man come to life again) the contrast would
not strike him here, and still less in the fields below, so much as
when he came near to Reading.

That everything else of age in Reading has disappeared one need not
say, but were that traveller here to-day, the thing that he would most
seek for and most lack would be the bulk of the building at the
farther end of the town.

One can best say what it was by saying that it was like Durham. It is
true that Durham Cathedral stands upon a noble cliff overhanging a
ravine, while Reading Abbey stood upon a small and irregular hill
which hardly showed above the flat plains of the river meadows, but in
massiveness of structure and in type of architecture Reading seems to
have resembled Durham more nearly than any other of our great
monuments, and to emphasise its parallelism to Durham is perhaps the
best way to make the modern reader understand what we have lost.

Nothing that he had seen in this journey would more have sunk into the
mind of a contemporary man, nothing that he would lack were he
resuscitated to-day would leave a want more grievous. In the
destruction of Reading the people of this country lost something which
not even their aptitude for foreign travel can replace.

Windsor, as he passed, stood up above the right of him, not very
different from what we still admire as we come down from Bray and look
up to the jutting fore-tower which is worthy of Coucy. But down below
Windsor (after whose bridge we to-day see nothing whatever of value),
just after he had passed the wooden bridge of Staines and shot the
weir of that town, the river bent southward.

The traveller would have found Pentonhook already forming or formed,
and when he had got round it he would have seen soaring above him down
stream the great mass of Chertsey Abbey. If Reading had the solidity
and the barbaric grandeur of Durham, Chertsey had in an ecclesiastical
way the vastness of Windsor, and must have seemed like a town to
anyone approaching it thus down the river. The enclosed area of the
abbey buildings alone covered four acres.

This impression which such a traveller would have received of the
great religious houses was enhanced by something more than the
magnitude and splendour of the buildings. Divided as was opinion at
that moment upon their value to the State, and jealous as had become
landless men of the long traditions and privileges of the monks, these
still represented not only their own wealth but the general
accumulation of capital and the continued prosperity of the river
valley. It is true to say, in spite of the difficulty of appreciating
such a truth in the light of our knowledge of what was to follow, that
the destruction of such foundations would have seemed to the traveller
before the Dissolution inconceivable. Nevertheless it came.

These notes are not the place in which to discuss that most difficult
of all historical problems--I mean the causes which led the nation to
abandon in a couple of generations the whole of its traditions and to
adopt, not spontaneously but at the bidding of a comparatively small
body of wealthy men, a new scheme of society. But it is of value to
consider the economic aspect of the thing, and to show what it was
that Henry desired to seize when his policy of Dissolution was
secretly formed.

The economic function of the monastic system in the Middle Ages, and
especially in the later Middle Ages, is one to which no sufficient
attention has been given by historians.

They collected, as does no modern agency, wealth from very various
sources, scattered up and down the whole of the kingdom, and often
farther afield, throughout Europe, and exercised the whole economic
power so drawn together in one centre, and so founded a permanent
nucleus of wealth in the place where the community resided.

We are indeed to-day accustomed to a similar effect in the action of
our wealthy families. The rents of the London poor, a toll upon the
produce of Egypt, of the Argentine, or of India, all flow into some
country house in the provinces, where it revives in an effective
demand for production, or lends to the whole countryside a wealth
which, of itself, it could never have produced. The neighbourhood of
Aylesbury, the palaces of the larger territorials, are modern examples
of this truth, that the economic power of a district does not reside
in its productive capacity, but in its capacity for effective demand.
And it is undoubtedly true that if there were anything permanent in
modern society we should be witnessing in the wealthier quarters of
Paris and London, in the Riviera in the holiday part of Egypt, and in
certain centres of provincial luxury in England, in France, and in
Western Germany, the foundation of a permanent economic superiority.

But nothing in modern society has any roots. Where to-day is some one
of these great territorial houses in fifty years there may be nothing
but decay. Fashion may change from the Riviera to some other part of
the Mediterranean littoral, and with fashion will go the concentration
of wealth which accompanies it.

In the Middle, and especially in the latter Middle, Ages it was
otherwise. The great religious houses not only tended to accumulate
wealth and to perpetuate it in the same hands (they could not gamble
it away nor disperse it in luxury; they could hardly waste it by
mismanagement), but they were also permanently fixed on one spot.

Such an institution as Reading, for example, or as Abingdon, went on
perpetually receiving its immense revenues for generation after
generation, and were under no temptation or rather had no capacity for
spending it elsewhere than in the situation where their actual
buildings were to be found.

In this way the great monastic houses founded a tradition of local
wealth which has profoundly affected the history of the Thames Valley.
And if that valley is still to-day one of the chief districts wherein
the economic power of England is concentrated, it owes that position
mainly to the centuries during which the great foundations exercised
their power upon the banks of the river.

The growth of great towns, one of the last phases of our national
development, one which finds its example in the Thames Valley as
elsewhere, and one to which we shall allude before closing these notes
upon the river, has somewhat obscured the quality of this original
accumulation of wealth along the Thames. But when we come to consider
the figures of the census at an earlier time, before modern
commercialism and the railway had drawn wealth and population into
fewer and larger centres, we shall see how considerable was the string
of towns which had grown up along the stream. And we shall especially
see how fairly divided among them was the population, and, it may be
presumed, the wealth and the rateable value, of the valley.

The point just mentioned in connection with the larger monastic
foundations, and their artificial concentration of economic power,
deserves a further elaboration, for the economic importance of a
district is one of the aspects of geography which even modern analysis
has dealt with very imperfectly.

Economists speak of the economic importance of such-and-such a spot
because material of use to man-kind is there discovered. Thus, people
commonly point to the economic importance of the valleys all round the
Pennine Range in England because they contain coal and metals, and to
the economic importance of a small district in South Wales for the
same reason.

A further consideration has admitted that not only places where things
useful to mankind are discovered, but places naturally fitted for
their exchange have an economic importance peculiarly their own.
Indeed, the more history is studied from the point of view of
economics, the more does this kind of natural opportunity emerge, and
the less does the political importance of purely productive areas
appear. The mountain districts of Spain, the Cornish peninsula, were
centres of metallic industry of the first importance to the Romans,
but they remained poor throughout the period of Roman civilisation.
To-day the farmer in the west of America, the miner and the clerk in
Johannesburg, are perhaps more numerous, but as a political force no
wealthier for the opportunities of their sites: the economic power
which they ultimately produce is first concentrated in the centres of
exchange where the wealth they produce is handled.

Now there is a third basis for the economic importance of a district,
and as this third basis is indefinitely more important than the other
two, it has naturally been overlooked in the analysis of the
universities. This basis is the basis of residence. Given that a
conqueror, or a seat of Government established by routine, is
established in a particular place and chooses there to remain; or
given that the pleasure attached to a particular site--its natural
pleasures or the inherited grandeur of its buildings or what not--make
it an established residence for those who control the expenditure of
wealth, then that place will acquire an economic importance which has
for its foundation nothing more material than the human will. Thither
wealth, wherever produced, will flow, and there will be discovered
that ultimate motive force of all production and of all exchange, the
effective demand of those possessors who alone can set the industrial
machine in motion.

This has been abundantly true in every period of the world's history,
whenever commerce existed upon a considerable scale, or whenever a
military force sufficiently universal was at the command of wealthy

It is particularly true to-day. To-day not the natural centres of
exchange, still less the natural centres of production, determine what
places in the world shall be wealthy and what shall not. The surplus
of the wealth produced by the Egyptian fellaheen is carefully
collected by English officials and largely consumed in Paris; the
wealth produced by the manufacturers of North England is largely spent
in the south of England and upon the Continent; until their recent and
successful revolt, the wealth produced by the Irish peasantry was
largely spent in London and upon the Riviera.

The economic importance, then, of the Thames Valley has not
diminished, but increased since South England ceased to be the main
field of production.

The tradition of Government, the habitual residence of the wealthy and
directing classes of the community, have centred more and more in
London. The old establishment of luxury in the Thames Valley has
perpetually increased since the decline of its industrial and
agricultural importance, and undoubtedly, if it were possible to draw
a map indicating the proportion of economic _demand_ throughout the
country, the Valley of the Thames would appear, in proportion to its
population, by far the most concentrated district in England, although
it contains but one very large town, and although it is innocent of
any very important modern industry.

It is interesting, in connection with this economic aspect of the
Thames Valley, to note that, alone of the great river valleys of
Europe, it has no railway system parallel to its banks. There is no
series of productive centres which could give rise to such a railway
system. The Great Western Railway follows the river now some distance
upon one side, now some distance upon the other, as far as Oxford; but
it does not depend in any way upon the stream, and where the course of
the stream is irregular it goes on its straight course, throwing out
branch lines to the smaller towns upon the banks: for the railway
depends, so far as this section is concerned, upon the industries of
the Midlands and of the west. Were you to cut off the sources of
carriage which it draws upon from beyond the Valley of the Thames it
could not exist.

The Scheldt, the Rhine, the Rhone, the Garonne, the Seine, the Elbe,
are all different in this from the Thames. The economic power of our
main river valley is chiefly a spending power. It produces little and,
though it exchanges more of human wealth, it is the artificial
machinery of exchange rather than the physical movement of goods that
enriches it.

Now this habit of residence, this settlement of the concentrated power
of demand upon the banks of the Thames, was the work of the monastic
houses. It may be argued that, with the commercial importance of
London, and with its attainment of the position of a capital, the
residence of such economic power would necessarily have spread up the
Thames Valley. It is doubtful whether any such necessity as this
existed. In Roman times the Thames certainly did not lead up thus in
the line of wealth from London, and though it is true that water
carriage greatly increased in importance after the breakdown of Roman
civilisation, yet the medium by which that water carriage was utilised
was the medium of the Benedictine foundations. They it was who
established that continuous line of progressive agricultural
development and who prepared the way for the later yet more continuous
line of the full monastic effort which succeeded the Conquest.

A list of monastic institutions upon the river, if we exclude the
friars, the hospitals, and such foundations as made part of town or
university life, is as follows:--a priory at Cricklade, another at
Lechlade, the Abbey at Eynsham (sufficiently near the stream to be
regarded as riparian), the Nunnery and School of Godstow, the great
Abbeys of Osney and Rewley, the Benedictine Nunnery at Littlemore, the
great Abbey of Abingdon, the Abbey of Dorchester, Cholsey (but this
had been destroyed before the Conquest, and was never revived), the
Augustinian Nunnery at Goring, the great Cluniac Abbey at Reading, the
Cell of Westminster at Hurley, the Abbey of Medmenham, the Abbey of
Bisham just opposite Marlow, and the Nunnery of Little Marlow; the
Nunnery of Burnham, which, though nearly a mile and a half from the
stream, should count from the position of its property as a riparian
foundation, the little Nunnery of Ankerwike, the great Benedictine
Abbey of Chertsey, the Carthusians of Sheen, and the Benedictines of
Westminster, to which may be added the foundation of Bermondsey.

When the end came the total number of those in control of such wide
possessions was small.

Indeed it was perhaps no small cause of the unpopularity, such as it
was, into which the same monasteries had locally fallen, that so much
economic power was concentrated in so few hands. The greater
foundations throughout the country possessed but a little more than
3000 religious, and even when all the nuns, friars, and professed
religious of the towns are counted, we do not arrive at more than 8000
in religion in an England which must have had a population of at least
4,000,000, and quite possibly a much larger number; nor could the mobs
foresee that the class which would seize upon the abbey lands would
concentrate the means of production into still fewer hands, until at
last the mass of Englishmen should have no lot in England.

Moreover, it would be an error to consider the numbers of the
religious alone. The smaller foundations, and especially the convents
of nuns, did certainly support but small numbers, and this probably
accounts for the ease with which they were suppressed, but, on the
other hand, their possessions also were small. In the case of the
great foundations, though one can count but 3000 monks and canons, the
number of them must be multiplied many times if we are to arrive at
the total of the communities concerned. Reading, Abingdon, and the
rest were little cities, with a whole population of direct dependants
living within the walls, and a still larger number of families
without, who indirectly depended upon the revenues of the abbey for
their livelihood.

Another and perhaps a better way of presenting to a modern reader the
overwhelming economic power of the mediaeval monastic system,
especially its economic power in the Valley of the Thames, would be to
add to such a list of houses a map of that valley showing the manors
in ecclesiastical hands, the freeholds and leaseholds held by the
great abbeys, in addition to the livings that were within their gift;
in a word, a map giving all their different forms of revenue.

Such a map would show the Valley of the Thames and its tributaries
covered with ecclesiastical influence upon every side.

Even if we confined ourselves to the parishes upon the actual banks of
the river, the map would present a continuous stretch of possessions
upon either side from far above Eynsham down to below bridges.

The research that would be necessary for the establishment of such a
complete list would require a leisure which is not at the disposal of
the present writer, but it is possible to give some conception of what
the monastic holdings were by drawing up a list confined to but a
small part of these holdings and showing therefore _a fortiori_ what
the total must have been.

In this list I concern myself only with the eight largest houses in
the whole length of the river. I do not mention parishes from which
the revenues were not important (though these were numerous, for the
abbeys held a large number of small parcels of land). I do not mention
the very numerous holdings close to the river but not actually upon it
(such as Burnham or Watereaton), nor, which is most important of all,
do I count even in the riparian holdings such foundations as were not
themselves set upon the banks of the Thames. Whatever Thames land paid
rent to a monastery not actually situated upon the banks of the river,
I omit. Finally the list, curtailed as it is by all these limitations,
concerns only the land held at the moment of the Dissolution. Scores
of holdings, such as those of Lechlade, which was dissolved in
Catholic times, Windsor, which was exchanged as we have seen at the
time of the Conquest, I omit and confine myself only to the lands held
at the time of the Dissolution.

Yet these lands--though they concern only eight monasteries, though I
mention only those actually upon the banks of the river, and though I
omit from the list all small payments--put before one a series of
names which, to those familiar with the Thames, seems almost like a
voyage along the stream and appears to cover every portion of the
landscape with which travellers upon the river are familiar. Thus we
have Shifford, Eynsham, South Stoke, Radley, Cumnor, Witham, Botley,
the Hinkseys, Sandford, Shillingford, Swinford, Medmenham, Appleford,
Sutton, Wittenham, Culham, Abingdon, Goring, Cowley, Littlemore,
Cholsey, Nuneham, Wallingford, Pangbourne, Streatley, Stanton
Harcourt; and all this crowd of names upon the upper river is arrived
at without counting such properties as attached to the great
monasteries within towns, as, for example, to the monasteries of
Oxford. It is true that not all these names represent complete
manorial ownership. In a number of cases they stand for portions of
the manor only, but even in this list ten at least, and possibly
twelve, stand for complete manorial ownership. Then one must add
Sonning, Wargreave, Tilehurst, Chertsey, Egham, Cobham, Richmond, Ham,
Mortlake, Sheen, Kew, Chiswick, Staines, etc., of which many of the
most important, such as Staines, are full manorial possessions.

It is clearly evident, from such a very imperfect and rapidly drawn
list, what was the economic power of the great houses, and one may
conclude, even from the basis of such imperfect evidence, that the
directing force of economic effort throughout the Thames Valley was to
be found, right up to the Dissolution, in the chapter houses of
Reading, of Chertsey, and of Westminster, of Abingdon and of the
lesser houses.

In a word, the business of Henry might be compared to what may be in
future the business of some democratic European Government when it
lays its hands upon the fortunes of the great financial houses, but
with this double difference, that the confiscation to which Henry bent
himself was a confiscation of capital whose product did not leave the
country, and could not be used for anti-national purposes, as also
that it was the confiscation of wealth which never acted secretly and
which had no interest, as have our chief moneylenders, in political
corruption. It was a vast undertaking and, in the truest sense of the
word, a revolutionary one, such as Europe had not seen until that
moment, and perhaps has not seen since.

It was effected with ease, because there did not reside in the public
opinion of the time any strong body of resistance.

The change of religion, in so far as a change was threatened (and upon
that the mass of the parish priests themselves, and still more the
mass of the laity, were very hazy), did not affect the mind of a
people famous throughout Europe for their intense and often
superstitious devotion; but in some odd way the segregation of the
great communities, their vast wealth, and perhaps an external
contradiction between their original office and their present
privilege, forbade any united or widespread enthusiasm in their

Englishmen rose upon every side when they thought that the vital
mysteries of the Faith were threatened. The risings were only put down
by the use of foreign mercenaries and by the most execrable cruelty,
nor would even these means have sufficed had the rebels formed a clear
plan, or had the purpose of Henry himself in matters of religion been
definite and capable of definite attack. But the country, though ready
to fight for Dogma, was not ready to fight for the monasteries. It
might, perhaps, have fought if the attack upon them had been direct
and universal. If Henry had laid down a programme of suppressing
religious bodies in general, he probably could not have carried it
out, but he laid down no such programme. The Dissolution of the
smaller houses was imagined by the most devout to be a statesmanlike
measure. Many of them, like Medmenham, were decayed; their wealth was
not to be used for the private luxury of the King or of nobles; it was
to swell the revenues of the greater foundations or to be applied to
pious or honourable public use. But the example once given, the attack
upon the greater houses necessarily followed; and the whole episode is
a vivid lesson in the capital principle of statesmanship that men are
governed by routine and by the example of familiar things. Render
possible to the mass of men the conception that the road, they
habitually follow is not a necessity of their lives, and you may exact
of them almost any sacrifice or hope to see them witness without
disgust almost any enormity.

Moreover, the great monasteries were each severally tricked. The one
was asked to surrender at one time, another at another; the one for
this reason, the other for that. The suppression of Chertsey, the
example perpetually recurring in these pages, was solemnly promised to
be but a transference of the community from one spot to another; then
when the transference had taken place the second community was
ruthlessly destroyed. There is ample evidence to show that each
community had its special hope of survival, and that each, until quite
the end of the process, regarded its fate, when that fate fell upon
it, as something exceptional and peculiar to itself. Some, or rather
many, purchased temporary exemption, doubtless secure in the belief
that their bribe would make that extension permanent. Their payments
were accepted, but the contracts depending upon them were never

When the Dissolution had taken place, apart from the private loot,
which was enormous, and to which we shall turn a few pages hence, a
methodical destruction took place on the part of the Crown.

In none of the careless waste which marked the time is there a worse
example than in the case of Reading. The lead had already been
stripped from the roof and melted into pigs; the timbers of the roof
had already been rotting for nearly thirty years, when Elizabeth gave
leave for such of them as were sound to be removed. Some were used in
the repairing of a local church; a little later further leave was
given for 200 cartloads of freestone to be removed from the ruins. But
they showed an astonishing tenacity. The abbey was still a habitation
before the Civil Wars, and even at the end of the eighteenth century a
very considerable stretch of the old walls remained.

Westminster was saved. The salvation of Westminster is the more
remarkable in that the house was extremely wealthy.

Upon nothing has more ink been wasted in the minute research of modern
history than upon an attempted exact comparison between modern and
mediaeval economics.

It is a misfortune that those who are best fitted to appreciate the
economic problems and science of the modern world are, either by race
or religion, or both, cut off from the mediaeval system, and even when
they are acquainted with the skeleton, as it were, of that body of
Christian Europe, are none the less out of sympathy with, or even
ignorant of, its living form and spirit.

The particular department of that inquiry which concerns anyone who
touches the vast economic revolution produced by the Dissolution of
the monasteries is the comparison of values (as measured in the
precious metals) between the early sixteenth century and the early

No sensible man needs to be told that such a comparison is one of the
very numerous parts of historical inquiry in which a better result is
arrived at in proportion as the matter is more generally and largely
observed. It is one in which detail is more fatal to a man even than
inaccuracy, and it is one in which hardly a single observer who has
been really soaked in his subject has avoided the most ludicrous

Again, no man of common sense need be told that a rigid multiple is
absolutely impossible of discovery. The search for such a multiple is
like a search for an index number which shall apply to all the varying
economic habits of the modern world. One cannot say: "Multiply prices
by 10" or "Multiply prices by 20," and thus afford the modern reader a
sound basis; but one can say, after some observation: "Multiply by
such-and-such a multiple" (wherever very large and varied expenditure
is concerned) and you will certainly have a minimum; though how much
_more_ such expenditure may have represented in those very different
and far simpler social circumstances cannot be precisely determined.
What, then, is the rough multiple that will give us our minimum?

The inquiry has been prosecuted by more than one authority upon the
basis of wheat. One may say that wheat in normal years in the early
sixteenth century stood at about an eighth of wheat in what I may call
the normal years of the nineteenth, before the influx of Colonial
produce began to be serious, and before the depreciation of silver
combined with other causes to disturb prices.

Those who have taken wheat for their basis, recognising, as even they
must do, that 8 is far too low a multiple, are willing to grant 10,
and sometimes even 12, and this way of calculating, largely because it
is a ready rule, has entered into many books upon the Reformation. The
early Tudor penny is turned into the modern shilling.

But this basis of calculation is false, because the eating of wheaten
bread was not then the universal thing it is to-day. The English
proletarian of to-day is, in comparison with the large well-to-do
class of his fellow-citizens, a far poorer man than his ancestry ever
were. Wheaten bread is, indeed, his necessity, but good fresh meat
(for example) is an exception for him.

Now the Englishmen of earlier times made beef a necessity, and yet we
find that beef will permit a higher multiple than wheat. Beef will
give you a multiple of 12, and just as wheat, giving you a multiple of
8, permits a somewhat higher general multiple, so beef, giving you a
multiple of 12, permits a higher one. So if we were to make beef our
staple instead of wheat we should get a multiple of 13 or 14 by which
to turn the money of the first third of the sixteenth century into the
money of our own time.

But beef, in its turn, is not a fair standard; during much of the year
pork had, under the circumstances of the time, to be eaten instead of
fresh meat. Pork is to-day almost the only meat all the year round of
many labourers on the land. Now pork gives a still higher multiple: it
gives 20. For the pound that you would now give in Chichester Market
for a breeding sow, you gave in the early years of the sixteenth
century a shilling. So here you have another article of common
consumption which gives you a multiple of 20.

Strong ale gives you a higher multiple still--one of nearly 24. You
could then get strong ale at a penny a gallon. You will hardly get it
at two shillings a gallon to-day; and yet it is made of the same
materials. The small ale of the hayfield will give you almost any
multiple you like; it is from eightpence to ninepence a gallon now: it
was often given away in the sixteenth century as water would be.

The consideration of but a few sets of prices such as those we have
quoted shows that the ordinary multiple might be anything between 8
and 24, with a prejudice in favour of the higher rather than the lower
figure. But there are other lines of proof which converge upon the
matter, and which permit a greater degree of certitude. For instance,
even after the rise in prices in the early part of Elizabeth's reign,
while sixpence a week is thought low for the board and lodging of a
working man, a shilling is thought very high, and is only given in the
case of first-rate artisans; and if we consider the pre-Reformation
period, when the position of the labourer was, of course, much better
than it was under Elizabeth, or ever has been since, we find something
of the same scale. A penny a day is thought a rather mean allowance,
but twopence a day is a first-rate extra board wage.

Again, in Henry VIII.'s first poll tax it is taken for granted that
many labourers have less than a pound a year in actual wages, and that
wages over this sum, up to two pounds, for instance, form a sort of
aristocracy of labour that can afford to pay taxation. Of course some
part of the wages so counted were paid in part board and lodging,
especially in the agricultural industries, but still, the reception of
240 pence for a year's work in money gives you a multiple of far more
than 20: you will not get a man about a house and garden for less than
thirty pounds though you feed and house him, and the unhoused outside
labourer gets, first and last, over fifty pounds at the least.

When the Reformation was in full swing the currency was debased almost
out of recognition, and before the death of Edward VI. prices are
rendered so fictitious by inflation that they are useless for our
purpose. It is only with the currency of Elizabeth that they became
true measures of value once more.

It is useless, therefore, to follow the inquiry after the Dissolution
of the monasteries, for not only was the currency at sixes and sevens,
but true prices were also rapidly rising with the influx of precious
metals from Spain and America.

I have said enough in this very elementary sketch to show that a
general multiple of 20, when one considers wages as well as staple
foods, is as high as can be fixed safely, while a general multiple of
12 is certainly too low.

But even to multiply by 20 is by no means enough if one is to
appreciate the social meaning of such-and-such a large income in the
first part of Henry VIII.'s reign.

A brief historical essay, such as is this, is no place in which to
discuss any general theory of economics; were there space to do so,
even in an elementary fashion, it would be possible to show how the
increase of wealth in a state is, on account of the increased
elasticity in circulation of the currency, almost independent of the
movement of prices. But without going into formulae; of this
complexity, a couple of homely comparisons will suffice to show what a
much larger thing a given income was in the early sixteenth century,
than its corresponding amount in values is to-day.

Consider a man with some L2000 a year travelling through modern
Europe. Prices, in the competition of modern commerce and the ease of
modern travel, are levelled up very evenly throughout the area that he
traverses. Yet such a man, should he settle in a village of Spanish
peasants, would appear of almost illimitable wealth, because he would
have at his command an almost indefinite amount of those simple
necessities which form the whole category of their consumable values.
Or again, let such a man settle in a place where the variety of
consumable values is large, but where the distribution of wealth is
fairly equal, and the small income, therefore, a normal social
phenomenon--as, for instance, among the lower middle class of
Paris-there again his L2000 a year would be of much greater effect
than in a society where wealth was unequally divided, for it would
produce that effect in a medium where the satisfaction of nearly every
individual around him was easily reached upon perhaps a tenth of such
an income.

When all this is taken into consideration we can begin to see what the
great monasteries were at the time of their dissolution. It is hardly
an exaggeration to multiply the list of mere values by 20 to bring it
into the terms of modern currency. A place worth close on L2000 a year
(as was, for instance, Ramsey Abbey) meant an income of not far short
of L40,000 a year in our money, to go by prices alone. And that
L40,000 a year was spent in an England in which nine-tenths of the
luxury of our modern rich was unknown, in which the squire was usually
but three or four times richer than one of his farmers, in which great
wealth, where it existed, attached rather to an office than to a
person. In general, the multiple of 20 must be further multiplied by a
coefficient which is not arithmetically determinable, but which we see
I to be very large by a general comparison of the small, poor, and
equable society of the early sixteenth century with the complex, huge,
wealthy, and wholly iniquitous society of our own day.

Supposing, for instance, we take the high multiple of 20, and say that
the revenues of Westminster at its dissolution in the first days of
1540 were some L80,000 a year in our modern money, we are far
underestimating the economic position of Westminster in the State.
There are to-day many private men in London who dispose of as great an
income, and who, for all their ostentation, are not remarkable; but
the income of Westminster in the early sixteenth century, when wealth
was far more equally divided than it is now, and when the accumulation
of it was far less, was a very different matter to what we mean to-day
by L80,000 a year. It produced more of the effect which we might
to-day imagine would be produced by a million. The fortune of but very
few families could so much as compare with it, and the fortunes of
individual families, especially of wealthy families, were, during the
existence of a strong king, highly perilous, and often cut short;
nothing could pretend to equal such an economic power but the Crown,
which then was, and which remained until the victory of the
aristocracy in the Civil Wars, by far the richest legal personality in
Britain. The temptation to sack Westminster was something like the
temptation presented to our financial powers to-day to get at the
rubber of the Congo Basin or at the unexploited coal of Northern

By a miracle that temptation was withstood. For the moment Henry
intended to construct a bishopric with its cathedral out of the old
corporation and abbey. He might have done so and yet have yielded
immediately after to his cupidity, as he did with the Cathedral of
Osney. It ended in the form which it at present maintains. The greater
part of its revenues were, of course, stolen, but the fabric was
spared and enough income was retained to permit the continuous life of
Westminster to our own time.

Men are slow to conceive what might have been--nay, what almost
_was_--in their national history; it seems difficult to our generation
to imagine Westminster Abbey absent only from the national life; yet
Abingdon is gone, all but a gateway, Reading all but a few ruined
walls, Chertsey has utterly disappeared, so has Osney, so has
Sheen--to mention the great river houses alone: Westminster alone
survives, and the only reason it survives is that it had about it at
the time of the destruction of the monasteries a royal flavour, and
that its existence helped to bolster up the Tudors. But for that it
would have been sold like the rest, the lead would have been stripped
from its roof, the glass broken and thrown aside, and a Cecil or a
Howard would have built himself a palace with the stones. It is but a
chance that the words "Westminster Abbey" mean more to us to-day than
"Woburn Abbey," "Bewley Abbey" or any one of the scores of "Abbeys,"
"Priories," and the rest, which are the names of our country houses.

Chertsey and Abingdon were less fortunate than Westminster.

Chertsey, indeed, has so thoroughly disappeared that it might be taken
as a symbol of all that England had been for the thirty generations
since Christianity had come to her, and then, in two generations of
men, ceased suddenly to be. There is, perhaps, not one in a thousand
of the vague Colonials who regard Westminster Abbey as a sort of
inevitable centre for Britishers and Anglo-Saxons, who has so much as
heard of Chertsey. There is perhaps but one in a hundred of historical
students who could attach a definite connection to the name, and yet
Chertsey came next in the list of the great Benedictine Abbeys;
Chertsey also was coeval with England.

Chertsey went the way of them all. The last abbot, John Cordery,
surrendered it in the July of 1537, but he and his community were not
immediately dispersed, they were taken off to fill that strange new
foundation of Bisham, of which we shall hear later in connection with
the river, and which in its turn immediately disappeared. Not a year
had passed, the June of 1538 was not over, when the new community at
Bisham was scattered as the old one at Chertsey had been.

Of the abbey itself nothing is left but a broken piece of gateway, and
the few stones of a wall. But a relic of it remains in Black Cherry
Fair, a market granted to the abbey in the fifteenth century and
formerly held upon St. Anne's Hill and upon St. Anne's Day.

The fate of this monastery has something about it particularly tragic,
for the abbot and the monks of Chertsey when they surrendered did so
in the full expectation of continuing their monastic life at Bisham,
and if Bisham was treacherously destroyed immediately after the fault
does not lie at their door.

With Abingdon it was otherwise. The last prior was perhaps the least
steadfast of all the many bewildered or avaricious characters that
meet us in the story of the Dissolution. He was one Thomas Rowland,
who had watched every movement of Henry's mind, and had, if possible,
gone before. He did not even wait until the demand was made to him,
but suggested the abandonment of the trust which so many generations
of Englishmen had left in his hands, and he had a reward in the gift
not only of a very large pension but also of the Manor of Cumnor,
which had been before the destruction of the religious orders the
sanatorium or country house of the monks. He obtained it: and from his
time on Cumnor has borne an air of desolation and of murder, nor does
any part of his own palace remain.

When any organised economic system disappears, there is nothing more
interesting in history than to watch the process of its replacement:
for example, the gradual disappearance of pagan slavery, and its
replacement by the self-governing peasantry of the Middle Ages, with
all the consequence of that change, affords some of the best reading
in Continental records. But the Dissolution of the English monasteries
has this added interest, that it was an immediate, and therefore an
overwhelming, change; there was hardly a warning, there was no delay.
Suddenly, not within the lifetime of a man, but within that of a
Parliament, from one year to another, a good quarter of the whole
economic power of the nation was utterly transformed. Nothing like it
has been known in European history.

What filled the void so made? The answer to this question is, the
Oligarchy: the landed class which had been threatening for so long to
assume the Government of England stepped into the shoes of the great
houses, and by this addition to their already considerable power
achieved the destruction of the monarchy and within 100 years
proceeded to the ordering of the English people under a small group of
wealthy men, a form of Government which to this day England alone of
all Christian nations suffers or enjoys.

This general statement must not be taken to mean that the oligarchic
system, whose basis lies in the ownership of land, was immediately
created by the Dissolution of the great monasteries. The development
of the territorial system of England, of which system the banks of the
Thames afford as good a picture as any in England, can be traced
certainly from Saxon, and conjecturally from Roman, times.

The Roman estate was, presumably, the direct ancestor of the manor,
and the Saxon thegns were perhaps most of them in blood, and nearly
all of them in social constitution, descended from the owners of the
Roman Villas which had seen the petty but recurrent pirate invasions
of the fifth and sixth centuries.

But though the manorial arrangement, with its village lords and their
dependent serfs, was common to the whole of the West, and could be
found on the Rhine, in Gaul, and even in Italy, in Saxon England it
had this peculiarity, that there was no systematic organisation by
which the local land-owner definitely recognised a feudal superior,
and through him the power of a Central Government. Or rather, though
in theory such recognition had grown up towards the end of the Saxon
period, in practice it hardly existed, and when William landed the
whole system of tenure was in disorder, in the sense that the local
lord of the village was not accustomed to the interference of a
superior, and that no groups of lords had come into existence by which
the territorial system could be bound in sheaves, as it were, and the
whole of it attached to one central point at the royal Court.

Such a system of groups _had_ arisen in Gaul, and to that difference
ultimately we owe the French territorial system of the present day,
but William the Norman's new subjects had no comprehension of it.

It was upon this account that even those manors which he handed over
to his French kindred and dependants were scattered, and that, though
he framed a vigorous feudal rule centring in his own hands, the
ancient customs of the populace, coupled with the lack of any bond
between scattered and locally independent units, forbade that rule to

William's order was not a century old when the recrudescence of the
former manorial independence was felt in the reign of Henry II. Under
the personal unpopularity of his son, John, it blazed out into
successful revolt, and, in spite of the veil thrown over underlying
and permanent customs by such strong feudal kings as the first and the
third Edwards, the independence and power of the village landlord
remained the chief and growing character of English life. It expressed
itself in the quality of the local English Parliament, in the support
of the usurping Lancastrian dynasty--in twenty ways that converge and
mingle towards the close of the Middle Ages.

But after the Dissolution of the monasteries this power of the squires
takes on quite a different complexion: the land-owning class, from a
foundation for the National Government, became, within two generations
of the Dissolution, the master of that Government.

For many centuries previous to the sixteenth the old funded wealth of
the Crown had been gradually wasting, at the expense of the Central
National Government and to the profit of the squires. But the
alienation was never complete. There are plenty of cases in which the
Crown is found resuming the proprietorship of a manor to which it had
never abandoned the theoretical title. With the Tudors such cases
become rarer and rarer, with the Stuarts they cease.

The cause of this rapid enfeeblement of the Crown lay largely in the
changed proportion of wealth. The King, until the middle of the
sixteenth century, had been far wealthier than any one of his
subjects. By a deliberate act, the breaking up of ecclesiastical
tenure, the Crown offered an opportunity to the wealthier of those
subjects so enormously to increase their revenues as to overshadow
itself; in a little more than a century after the throwing open of the
monastic lands the King is an embarrassed individual, with every issue
of expenditure ear-marked, every source of it controlled, and his very
person, as it were, mortgaged to a plutocracy. The squires had not
only added to their revenues the actual amounts produced by the sites
and estates of the old religious foundations, they had been able by
this sudden accession of wealth to shoot ahead in their competition
with their fellow-citizens. The _counterweight_ to the power of the
local landlord disappeared with the disappearance of the monastery.

To show how the religious houses had furnished a powerful
counterweight by which the Central Government and the populace could
continue to oppose the growing power of the landed oligarchy, we may
take all the southern bank of the Thames from Buscot to Windsor. We
find at the time of the Conquest twelve royal manors and fifteen
religious; only the nine remaining were under private lords. Four and
a half centuries later, at the time of the Dissolution, the royal
manors have passed for the most part into private hands, but the
manors in the hands of the religious houses have actually increased in

At this point it is important to note an economic phenomenon which
appears at first sight accidental, but which, on examination, is found
to spring from calculable political causes. At the moment of the
Dissolution it was apparently in the power of the Crown to have
concentrated the revenues of all these monastic manors into its own
hands, and this typical stretch of country, the Berkshire shore, shows
how economically powerful the Central Government of England might have
become had the property surrendered to the Crown been kept in the
hands of the King.

The modern reader will be tempted to inquire why it was not so kept.

Most certainly Henry intended to keep, if not the whole of it (for he
must reward his servants, and he was accustomed to do things largely),
yet at least the bulk of it in the Royal Treasury, and had he been
able to do so the Central Government of England would have become by
far the strongest thing in Europe. It is conceivable, though in
consideration of the national character doubtful, that with so
powerful an instrument of government, England, instead of standing
aside from the rapid bureaucratic recasting of European civilisation
which was the work of the French Crown, might have led the way in that
chief of modern experiments. One can imagine the Stuarts, had they
possessed revenue, doing what the Bourbons did: one can imagine the
modern State developing under an English Crown wealthier than any
other European Government, and the re-birth of Europe happening just
to the north, instead of just to the south, of the Channel.

But the speculation is vain. As a fact, the whole of the new wealth
slipped rapidly from between the fingers of the English King.

When of three forces which still form an equilibrium two are
stationary and one is pressing upon these two, then, if either of the
stationary forces be removed, that which was pressing upon both
overwhelms the stationary force that remains. The monastic system had
been marking time for over 100 years, and in certain political aspects
of its power had perhaps slightly dwindled. The monarchy, for all its
splendour, was in actual resources no more than it had been for some
generations. Pressing upon either of these two institutions was the
rising and still rising force of the squires. It is not wonderful that
under such conditions the spoil fell to the younger and advancing

Consider, for example, the extraordinary anxiety of so apparently
powerful a king as Henry for the formal consent of the Commons to his
acts. It has been represented as part of the Tudor national policy and
what not, but those who write thus have not perhaps smiled, as has the
present writer, over the names of those who sat for the English shires
in the Parliament which assented to the Dissolution of the great
monastic houses. Here is a Ratcliffe from Northumberland, and a
Collingwood; here is a Dacre, a Musgrave, a Blenkinsop; the Constables
are there, and the Nevilles from Yorkshire; the Tailboys of Lincoln, a
Schaverell, a Throgmorton, a Ferrers, a Gascoyne; and of course,
inevitably, sitting for Bedfordshire, a hungry Russell.

Here is a Townshend, a Wingfield, a Wentworth, an Audley--all from
East Anglia--a Butler; from Surrey a Carew, and that FitzWilliam whose
appetite for the religious spoils proved so insatiable; here is a
Blount out of Shropshire; a Lyttleton, a Talbot (and yet _another_
Russell!), a Darrell, a Paulet, a Courtney, (to see what could be
picked up in his native county of Devon), and after him a Grenfell.
These are a few names taken at random to show what humble sort of
"Commons" it was that Henry had to consider. They are significant
names; and the "Constitution" had little to do then, and has little to
do now, with their domination. Wealth was and is their instrument of

That such men could ultimately force the Government is evident, but
what is remarkable, perhaps, is the extraordinary rapidity with which
the Crown was stripped of its new wealth by the gentry, and this can
only be explained in two ways:

First, there was the rapid change in prices which rose from the
Spanish importation of precious metals from America, the effect of
which was now reaching England; and, secondly, the Tudor character.

As to the first, it put the National Government, dependent as it still
largely was upon the customary and fixed payments, into a perpetual
embarrassment. Where it still received nothing but the customary
shilling, it had to pay out three for material and wages, whose price
had risen and was rising. In this embarrassment, in spite of every
subterfuge and shift, the Crown was in perpetual, urgent, and
increasing need. Rigid and novel taxes were imposed, loans were raised
and not repaid, but something far more was needed to save the
situation, with prices still rising as the years advanced. Ready money
from those already in possession of perhaps half the arable land of
England was an obvious source, and into their pockets flowed, as by
the force of gravitation, the funded wealth which had once supported
the old religion. Hardly ever at more than ten years' purchase,
sometimes at far less, the Crown turned its new rentals into ready
money, and spent that capital as though it had been income.

The Tudor character was a second cause.

It is a pleasing speculation to conceive that, if some character other
than a Tudor had been upon the throne, not all at least of this
national inheritance would have been dissipated. One can imagine a
character--tenacious, pure, narrow and subtle, intent upon dignity,
and with a natural suspicion of rivals--which might have saved some
part of the estates for posterity. Charles I., for example, had he
been born 100 years earlier, might very well have done the thing.

But the Tudors, for all their violence, were fundamentally weak. There
was always some vice or passion to interrupt the continuity of their
policy--even Mary, who was not the offspring of caprice, had inherited
the mental taint of the Spanish house--and before the last of the
family had died, while still old men were living who, as children, had
seen the monasteries, nearly all this vast treasure had found its way
into the pockets of the squires. In the middle of the seventeenth
century every one of these villages is under a private landlord:
before the close of it even the theoretical link of their feudal
dependence upon the Crown is snapped: and the two centuries between
that time and our own have seen the power of the new landlords
steadily maintained and latterly vastly increased.

Apart from the transfer of the monastic manors there was yet another
way in which the Dissolution of the religious houses helped on the
establishment of the landed oligarchy in the place of the old National
Government. The monasteries had owned not only these full manorial
rights, but also numerous parcels of land scattered up and down in
manors whose lordship was already in private hands. These parcels,
like the small lay freeholds, which they resembled, formed nuclei of
resistance to the increasing power of the squires.

The point is of very considerable importance, though not easy to seize
for anyone unacquainted with the way in which the territorial
oligarchy has been built up or ignorant of the present conditions of
English village life.

At the close of the Middle Ages the lord of a manor in England, though
possessed of a larger proportion of the land than were his colleagues
in other countries, but rarely could claim so much as one half of the
acreage of a parish; the rest was common, in which his rights were
strictly limited and defined, to the advantage of the poor, and also
side by side with common was to be found a number of partially and
wholly independent tenures, over which the squire had little or no
control, from copyholds which did furnish him occasional sums of
money, to freeholds which were practically independent of him.

The monasteries possessed parcels of this sort everywhere. To give but
one example: Chertsey had twenty acres of freehold pasturage in the
Manor of Cobham; but it is useless to give examples of a thing which
was as common as the renting of a house to-day. Now these small
parcels formed a most valuable foundation upon which the independence
of similar lay parcels could repose. The squire might be tempted to
bully a four-acre man out of his land, but he could not bully the
Abbot of Abingdon, or of Reading. And so long as these small parcels
were sanctioned by the power of the great houses, so long they were
certain to endure in the hands even of the smallest and the humblest
of the tenants. To-day in a modern village where a gentleman possesses
such an island of land, better still where several do, there at once
arises a tendency and an opportunity for the smaller men to acquire
and to retain. The present writer could quote a Sussex village in the
centre of which were to be found, but thirty years ago, more than
half-a-dozen freeholds. They disappeared: in its prosperity "The
Estate" extinguished them. The next heir in his embarrassment has
handed over the whole lump to a Levantine for a loan. Had the Old
Squire spared the small freeholds they would have come in as
purchasers and would have increased their number during the later
years when the principal landlord, his son, was gradually falling into
poverty and drink.

When the monasteries were gone the disappearance of the small men
gradually began. It was hastened by the extinction of that old
tradition which made the Church a customary landlord exacting quit
rents always less than the economic value of the land, and, what with
the security of tenure and the low rental, creating a large tenant
right. This tenant right vested in the lucky dependants of the Church
did indeed create intense local jealousies that help to account for
much of the antagonism to the monastic houses. But the future showed
that the benefits conferred, though irregular and privileged, were
more than the landless men could hope to expect when they had
exchanged the monk for the squire.

Finally, the Dissolution of the religious houses strengthened the
squires in the mere machinery of the constitution. Before that
Dissolution the House of Lords was a clerical house. Had you entered
the Council of Henry VII. when Parliament sat at Westminster you would
have seen a crowd of mitres and of croziers, bishops and abbots of the
great abbeys, among whom, here and there, were some thirty lay lords.
This clerical House of Lords, sprung largely from the populace,
possessed only of life tenure, was a very different thing from the
House of Lords that succeeded the Dissolution. _That_ immediately
became a committee, as it were, of the landed class; and a committee
of the landed class the House of Lords remained until quite the last
few years, when the practice of purchase has admitted to it brewers,
money-lenders, Colonial speculators, and, indeed, anyone who can
furnish the sum required by a woman or a secret party fund. A concrete
example is often of value in the illustration of a general process,
and at the expense of a digression I propose to lay before the reader
as excellent a picture as we have of the way in which the Dissolution
of the monasteries not only emphasised the position of the existing
territorial class, but began to recruit it with elements drawn from
every quarter, and, while it established the squires in power, taught
them to be careless of the origin or of the end of the families
admitted to their rank.

For this purpose I can find no better example than that of the family
of Williams, which by the licence of custom we have come to call
"Cromwell"; the most famous member of this family stands out in
English history as the typical squire who led the Forces of his Order
against the impoverished Monarchy, and so reduced that emblem of
Government to the simulacrum which it still remains.

Putney, by Thames-side, was the home of their very lowly beginnings.

Of the descent of the Williams throughout the Middle Ages nothing is
known. Much later they claimed relationship with certain heads of the
Welsh clans, but the derivation is fantastic. At any rate a certain
Williams was keeping a public-house in Putney in the generation which
saw the first of the Reformers. His name was Morgan, and the "Ap
William" or "Williams" which he added to that name was an affix due to
the Welsh custom of calling a man by his father's name; for surnames
had not yet become a rule in the Principality. He may have come, and
probably did, from Glamorganshire, and that is all we can say about
him; though we must admit some weight in Leland's contemporary
evidence that his son, Richard, was born in the same county, at a
place called Llanishen. Anyhow, there he is, keeping his public-house
in the first years of the sixteenth century by the riverside at

There lived in the same hamlet (which was a dependency of the manor of
Wimbledon) a certain Cromwell or Crumwell, who was also called Smith;
but this obscure personage should most probably be known by the first
of these two names, for his humble business was the shoeing of horses,
and the second appellation was very probably a nickname arising from
that trade. He also added beer-selling to his other work, and this
common occupation may have formed a link between him and his
neighbour, Morgan ap William.

The next stage in the story is not perfectly clear. Smith or Crumwell
had a son and two daughters, the son was called Thomas, and the
daughter that concerns us was called Katherine. It is highly probable,
according to modern research into the records of the manor, that
Morgan ap William married Katherine. But the matter is still in some
doubt. There are not a few authorities, some of them painstaking,
though all of them old, who will have it that the blacksmith's son,
Thomas, loved Morgan ap William's sister, instead of its being the
other way about. It is not easy to establish the exact relationship
between two public-house keepers who lived as neighbours in a dirty
little village 400 years ago.

Thomas proceeded to an astonishing career; he left his father's forge,

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